Words You Need to Know: CONTEXT

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This is the weakest possible image I could have used as an illustration for Context. Please forgive me.

I’m sure this is no revelation to you, but nothing happens in a vacuum. You read this not as a neutral human being who exists outside the time-space continuum, but as a senior in high school, burdened consciously and unconsciously with all the accoutrements of senior-ness: new t-shirts, obstructed view car windows, anticipation about a new level of freedom in your learning.

You also read it through lenses so familiar to you that you’re unaware of your biases. You’re an American who believes in values articulated more than two centuries ago, an American whose country has been at war pretty much since you started your education. You live in the Internet Age, in a post-9/11, post-Holocaust world, in a post-bipartisan era, as you pursue your 21st century education. I could go on and on (no, really, I could) but I’m sure you get the point: context is a diamond whose many, many facets are apparent only when you step back and consider yourself in a new light. As we experience literature, we will return to three categories of context: the reader’s (yours in the here and now); the writer’s (in that person’s there and then); and the enduring (through the history of humanity).

While contexts – that is, the circumstances surrounding an act or event – are constantly changing, people don’t change that much. We still want to fall in love; we still feel the weight of our lineage and the strength of our heritage; we still want to belong to a group and feel stressed when we’re excluded or don’t fit; once we’re fed and sheltered, we want to experience intellectual, spiritual, artistic and perhaps even moral growth; we alternate between striving for power and striving for justice. Maybe more than anything else, we want to gain some understanding of ourselves.

This ongoing quest to find love, beauty and justice, to figure out the cycle of destruction and regeneration, to understand why we do as we do to others and why they do as they do to us – these yearnings and others unnamed constitute what I will refer to as “the enduring context,” as the subjects of the art that survives generations, centuries, millennia because it speaks to those truths that are fundamental to human experience.

Let’s take a breath. To this point, I have discussed the Reader’s Context (yours) and the Enduring Context (humanity’s).


We’re now left with the trickiest, most mercurial of our three contexts: the Writer’s Context. What makes this tricky is that we tend to forget that Sophocles and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky were human beings who wanted the kinds of things human beings want. (This makes more sense if you read “The Scholars” by WB Yeats.) Sophocles wanted to win the playwriting contest so he could feel the satisfaction of being first among peers. Shakespeare wanted to make money so he could redeem his father’s legacy (at least, if you subscribe to Stephen Greenblatt’s thesis). Dostoevsky wanted to make money so he could blow it on roulette while simultaneously curing Russia of the problem of crime.

What makes this context mercurial is that it’s hard to pin down how much information or how little information about the author is relevant to the text. People who take a facile approach to this context will name some historical facts and plug a poem into a period as a way of determining its meaning. They will take biographical details and psychoanalyze the writer through the work. The point is, how much stock you should put into historical or biographical context will vary from text to text, even when you’re reading works by the same writer. No factual “knowledge” about time, place and person will help you make authentic sense of what you read.

So where are all these words supposed to take you?

Well, to a place where you understand that your critical thinking matters all the time to everything you read. To the three-way intersection of Dialogue, Inquiry and Context. You may or may not have heard that I have a reputation for being “vague.” This is not because I like being the Riddler or cultivating some air of mystery. It’s because I can’t tell you some objective meaning of a text, or tell you what a text should mean to you. You and I exist in a Venn diagram of contexts – heck, the same can be said for each of you. Even within those contexts we share, we have different details to color our perceptions of the same things. Your understanding of which contexts are relevant to which works will be a product of your inquiry into and dialogue with texts, and that understanding is critical to your making of  authentic meaning of your reading.